European Jews and America’s Inadvertent Moral Amnesia

When I was younger– I can’t remember how young, but I would guess I was about 10 or 11 years old– I read the fantastic young adult book Summer of My German Soldier by Bette Green.  The book is about a Jewish-American girl who hides an escaped German POW in her small Arkansas town; her family’s maid, who is black, discovers their secret and helps them.  At the end of the book (spoiler alert!), they’re caught and she and the maid are put on trial for treason.

Honestly, my memory is fuzzy on a lot of the details, since I read this about twenty years ago, but one thing completely confused me at the end of the book and shocked me so much that I never forgot it: one of the characters, either a police officer or lawyer or someone else with authority, said something along the lines of, “I’ve never seen a case with the three most hated groups in America,” to mean Jews, African-Americans, and Nazis.

To my young, rural-South-raised mind, I understood why he would say that about African-Americans and Nazis– we were taught about the Holocaust and Civil Rights movement in school, after all– but I didn’t understand why he said that about Jews.  At that point in my life I don’t think I’d ever heard anyone say anything bad about Jews.  There also weren’t many Jews at all in the small Virginia county where I was raised, and the ones that were there, I don’t think I knew that they were Jewish.  As far as I understood at that time, I only knew about Jews as the victims of the Holocaust and had no idea that anyone other than Nazis has any problem with them.

I think this has a lot to do with the way WWII and the Holocaust are taught in schools in the US, or at least the way they were taught in my schools.  Our history books and teachers always portrayed the Holocaust as one bad man who somehow inexplicably rose to power and did some very bad things with the help of some very bad henchmen.  The truth is, of course, much more complicated than that, because the history of Jews in Europe goes way farther back than then 1930s.  I knew about Old Testament-era Jewish history and I knew about the Holocaust, but I didn’t know anything that happened in-between.

One of the perks of living in Turkey is that it’s very easy, quick, and cheap to get to Europe from here (no transatlantic flight needed!); I’ve had the privilege of traveling to several countries over the past couple of years, including many with long, complicated, and shameful histories when it comes to how they’ve treated Jews.  Spending time in places like Berlin and Vienna and Prague has given me an entirely new knowledge of just how the Holocaust was allowed to happen.

Did you know that the word ghetto is Italian and one of the first Jewish ghettos (forced segregation) was in Venice in 1516?  Or that Jews were expelled from England in 1290?  Or that Jews were blamed for the Black Death in the 14th century?  I took a walking history tour of Prague, which included a stop in the Jewish Quarter.  The Jewish Quarter in Prague dates back to the 13th century, where the city’s Jews were forced to vacate their homes and settle in a neighborhood that was in a bend of the Vltava River– the first place to flood in heavy rains, which caused a long history of sickness and disease there.  The Jewish Quarter includes Europe’s oldest synagogue (established 1270) and also the Old Jewish Cemetery, which is a walled, raised cemetery– our tour guide told us that bodies there are 12 layers deep, piled on top of each other, because the Jews living in the quarter weren’t allowed to bury their dead anywhere else in the city.

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Old Jewish Quarter in Prague

Discrimination against Jews existed long before Hitler came along.  You can read a fuller (but still abbreviated) history of Jewish discrimination in an interview with Tara Zahra, who writes about European migration.  It’s easy to convince a population that an entire group of people aren’t human when most people have already been thinking that, either explicitly or in the back of their minds, for centuries.

But more than their history, it’s interesting to see how those cities deal with their past in the present.  Berlin is very open about confronting their history, with many monuments and museums; Vienna has stolperstein, literal stumbling blocks placed around the city with the names and dates of those persecuted by the Nazis, to remind themselves of what happened; in Budapest, there are bronzed shoes on the bank of the Danube River where Hungarian Jews were executed.  Many of the synagogues in the Jewish neighborhoods of these cities are still heavily guarded.

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Entrance to the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest, the world’s second-largest synagogue

In addition to the moral aftermath of WWII, Europe is still dealing with the practical aftermath, like how to locate and return art stolen by Nazis to their original owners.  (Or, in some cases, how to convince cities to give the art back to its original owners.)

What I’m saying is, in Europe, WWII is still a living history in a lot of ways.  We do not get that same feeling in America.  We like to think of our involvement as purely heroic and a very long time ago.  I’m not saying anything against the American soldiers who fought in WWII– my own grandfather earned a Purple Heart on the beaches of Normandy and recently received a French Legion of Honor medal because of it–and America did take in many Jewish refugees (although we turned many away too, including Anne Frank and her family).  But I’ve never met an American who feels any sort of personal guilt or personal moral reflection about the Holocaust.  We like to think of ourselves as the good guys who of course would never sit back and let anything happen like that again.

And I’m not claiming that we should necessarily feel any sort of moral responsibility for the past, but I do think that it harms our ability to see warning signs of history repeating itself.  I think those of us who grew up in the 80s and 90s in America have a false sense of security that nothing that catastrophic could ever happen again– after all, WWII, segregation/the Civil Rights movement, and most of the Cold War happened before we were born.  We grew up with a relatively stable world order.  We assume that world leaders and the people voting for them are mostly rational adults, and rational adults do not let other people kill people en masse.  But the Holocaust happened recently enough that many of the people involved in it– concentration camp prisoners, refugees, and soldiers alike– are still alive, although it won’t be that way for much longer.

(I still remember studying abroad in Orvieto, Italy, when I was 19, and our professor pointed out the metal “M”s welded above several of the town’s gates, for “Mussolini,” and having the uncomfortable realization that many of the charming old people I saw walking the streets during passeggiata each evening might have been Mussolini supporters back in the day.)

I think resting in that assumption that we can count on the people in power to not lead us down another path of death and destruction– always aimed at groups that are already oppressed and vulnerable– is a mistake.  It is up to us to look for the warning signs and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

As so many people have said before, it wasn’t just Nazis who were responsible for the death of eleven million people: it was also the average citizens who sat back and quietly did nothing.

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